Usually I hate things that are followed by the number ‘2’.
I have to start by saying that I bought and played Borderlands 2 on the day it was released and only just finished it two weeks ago with the help of a few overly leveled friends of mine. I had come into it with all the fresh faced optimism of someone who had loved the original despite the flaws. Sure enough I put about 10 hours into the sequel and couldn’t help but gush hyperbole about how amazing it is as the ‘sophomore album’. As the followup to one of my most loved shooters, it was seemingly hitting all the right buttons. That was around 6 months ago. At a certain point the game began to swallow up my expectations and my enjoyment into a shallow mess of trudging stubbornly forward through huge maps filled with enemies that could kill me too quickly and checkpoints that were entirely too spaced out.
Looking back it’s not the fault of the game really. This isn’t me shifting blame away from a game that I had highly praised all of the last year, but a serious reflection of how I play games and how Borderlands 2 SHOULD be played.
The game itself is very noisy. You’re pummeled with information from the moment you load. A list of friends who are playing is shown to the right side of the screen complete with what character, level, and quest they are currently on. Your character (him or herself) is shown carrying whatever gear you’ve equipped on them. It’s a very visually pleasing version of every MMO log in screen you’ve ever seen. That theme continues throughout the rest of the menus as well. Menu’s pop up in a way that never really takes you out of the action and everything makes sense in the world of the game. You want to change your guns? Open up a holographic inventory interface and choose which gun to zap into your hands from the Future Space Backpack that’s currently holding them. Even your shield is broken in an extremely noticeable and visually immersive way. They’ve got the details on lockdown.
The game is noisy, but in the same way that an expertly produced pop song is noisy.
Given all that information they’re blasting at you, it makes sense that the decision was made to start the game a little slowly. The first couple hours involve you following an annoying robot through a frozen wasteland while the game dutifully teaches you how to play. I don’t enjoy such obvious tutorial driven gameplay, and it’s no different in this case. Luckily for me (and everyone else) that game picks up significantly when you get past all that and into the first boss battle. From that point the game does its best to keep you from being able to take any sort of stock. There are moments where you’re dumped back into the the central hub of this games word (unironically titled Sanctuary). Even then, however, you’re running around doing everything but take a moment to reflect on possible happenings around you because of the slot machines, or side quests, or gun shops.
The frenetic pace eventually broke me.
I started up the game playing zer0, the ninja like character whose main two ways to kill people are through stealth and sniping. The defining ability of zer0 is to throw out a decoy of himself while he becomes invisible, allowing him to sneak around behind a distracted enemy and despatch him in one of the two ways you see fit. His skills all revolve around shooting single target, high damage weapons and are utterly useless for the type of game Borderlands 2 turned out to be. Don’t get me wrong, he fits in great on any team, but as a solo character he’s simply too slow and plodding to make progress through some of the games more arduous stretches.
Imagine trying to tighten a single screw while tied to a supersonic missile.
Everything about the game screams at you to do things at a certain, breakneck pace, while zer0’s character is built around the traditional idea of taking each engagement at a steady and measured pace. That’s how I approached the game and that’s where the game failed for me. The failing can’t be blamed entirely on the game. I had projected onto zer0 how I thought the character should be played and proceeded to stubbornly drag that archaic design through this modern destruction derby without thought of how I could change the character to adapt. Instead of choosing a different path I had decided that the designers had been mistaken in pushing zer0 into the game.
One of the things we can learn from Broderlands 2 is that sometimes our own prejudices make great games feel worse than they are. In no measure is Borderlands 2 a boring or particularly difficult game, but because I had decided to play in exactly the wrong way my experience was tainted. Should designers change the game in order to allow people like me to enjoy a slow and plodding playthrough? Absolutely not. Was I wrong for playing the game in that specific way? Absolutely not. Sometimes though, the vector of gameplay and gameplayer can meet a such an odd angle that there is simply no reconciliation. People should be cognizant of their prejudices while critiquing games or even while simply trying to enjoy games.
That’s only the first thing I took away from Broderlands 2. In the second part of this write up, I’ll talk about the phrase ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ and why it’s not just a naval gazing buzzword.
- You’ll shoot and loot yourself silly in Borderlands 2 (reviews.cnet.com)